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Introducing the GTS 450
For the GTS 450, Nvidia has elected to disable the GF106's third memory controller and ROP partition, so the card effectively has a 128-bit path to memory and 16 pixels per clock of ROP throughput. That allows the GTS 450 to meet the Juniper-based Radeon HD 5700 series head-on with very similar specifications.

Here's a look at the GeForce GTS 450 reference design from Nvidia. Retail cards should be based on it, but will differ to one degree or another. The GPU on this card is clocked at 783MHz (its double-pumped SMs thus run at 1566MHz), with a memory clock of 900MHz—or 3.6 Gbps, as is the fashion for reporting quad-data-rate GDDR5 speeds. Onboard are eight memory chips—four on the front and four on the back—totaling 1GB of capacity. You'll notice, also, that there are two pads empty on the top side of the board, visible above. Two more empty pads are on the back, too, raising the likely prospect of a full-on GF106 card based on this same PCB design.

The reference GTS 450 has Nvidia's now-standard complement of twin dual-link DVI ports and a mini-HDMI output. Board makers may deviate from this formula, as we'll see. All GTS 450 cards should only require a single, six-pin auxiliary power input, though, since the card's max power rating, or TDP, is 106W.

GTS 450 cards running at stock clock frequencies are already selling online for Nvidia's suggested price of $130. That squarely positions the GTS 450 against the Radeon HD 5750, which has dipped as low as $120 this past weekend in order to welcome the GTS 450.

For just ten bucks more, or $140, you can grab the Asus ENGTS450 TOP card pictured above, with considerably higher clock rates: a 925MHz GPU core, 1850MHz shaders, and 1GHz/4 Gbps memory. Nvidia often leaves board makers with some leeway for higher clock speeds at higher prices, but this is a bit of funny move, because the GF106 apparently has beaucoup headroom—and at $140, this version of the GTS 450 is pretty much a direct competitor for the Radeon HD 5770. This Sapphire 5770, for instance, sells at that same price.

As is obvious from the picture, the Asus TOP card has a custom cooler. What may not be so obvious, given the shrouding on both, is that Asus' cooler is quite a bit beefier than the stock one, with more metal and a larger heatsink surface. Asus calls this its Direct CU cooler, due to that fact that the copper heatpipes (beneath the chrome plating) make direct contact with the surface of the GPU. Asus' other enhancements over the reference board include a custom VRM design with a higher phase count, the ability to tweak the GPU voltage for overclocking via its Smart Doctor software, and a metal bracket across the top of the board to provide additional sturdiness. Oh, and Asus includes a full-size HDMI port, a VGA connector, and just one DVI output.

We have little patience for debating over five or ten bucks in an age when top-flight games run $60—heck, we're lousy at reviewing video cards in this category, since we'd nearly always step up a notch or two—but if it were up to us to choose, we'd pick the $140 Asus TOP over the $130 stock card ten times out of ten. If that choice is too daunting for you, we hear MSI is splitting the difference by offering a GTS 450 at 850MHz/4 Gbps for $135. That should rouse you out of your stultifying indecision.

We took some flak for not including higher-clocked retail versions of competing Radeon cards in our recent SLI vs. CrossFire roundup, so when we set out to do this review—before Nvidia revealed the exact pricing of the GTS 450 to us—we went looking for a hot-clocked Radeon HD 5750 to serve as a comparison. The best we could find selling at Newegg was Sapphire's Vapor-X variant, pictured above, which Sapphire kindly agreed to send us. This baby is clocked at 710MHz/1160MHz, up 10MHz from a stock 5750. The custom Vapor-X cooler on this card is pretty nice, but unfortunately, this product is currently selling for 150 bucks at Newegg. A mail-in rebate will knock that down to $135, net, but we think this thing's asking price will have to drop in response to movement on other 5750 and 5770 cards, as well as the GTS 450's introduction. We've included full results for the Vapor-X 5750 on the following pages, so you can see how the tweaked clocks and fancy cooler change things.

Some driver changes from Nvidia
Alongside the release of the GTS 450, Nvidia today is introducing a new generation of its driver software, release 260, that will bring some notable improvements for owners of various GeForce cards. The firm claims performance boosts for all GTS/GTX 400-series graphics cards in certain games, ranging from 7-29%. Often, such claims for new drivers are limited to very specific scenarios—as is the 29% number in this case, which applies to a certain game at certain settings—but we can't deny that Nvidia has made tremendous progress in tuning the performance of Fermi-based GPUs since their introduction. These drivers should be another step forward.

Beyond that, the release 260 drivers enable bitstream audio output over HDMI, with support for 24-bit, 96 and 192KHz audio formats from compatible Blu-ray movies on GTX400-series GPUs, as well as the GT240/220/210. Both the Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio formats are supported.

Release 260 also brings a new user interface for the setup of multi-display configurations, and happily, the software for the funny-glasses-based GeForce 3D Vision is now packaged with the standard video driver.

All of these changes come in a new driver package, with an installer script that offers more control over which components are installed. In my experience, this installer is quite a bit quicker than the old one, which sometimes paused for minutes at a stretch for no apparent reason. Among the new choices in this script is a clean install option that purportedly "completely wipes out" older video drivers before installing new ones. That may help with troubleshooting—or simply satisfying those OCD urges—in some cases.